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Literature : Interview

Michael Robbins

by Elsbeth Pancrazi

“It’s like we’ve all signed this pact: we’re all supposed to believe that poetry is endangered, and poetry is the noblest of arts, and we must be very careful to only say nice things about one another, even if those nice things are not honest.” Michael Robbins talks to Elsbeth Pancrazi about Alien vs. Predator, Internet fame, and his Seidelian hip hop aesthetic.

New York City poet Elsbeth Pancrazi and Chicago’s Michael Robbins connected via GoogleVoice to talk about—what else?—the Internet, that giant, cacophonous conversation happening online and its influence on contemporary poetry.

Elsbeth Pancrazi This was a weird interview for me to prepare for because—I don’t know if you know this, but—you don’t have a book out yet.

Michael Robbins Ha. Right, Alien vs. Predator comes out in April of next year.

EP I first read your work in Poetry, and then I found some poems on the Internet, and tried to piece you together. That said, I am curious about how you think poems operate on the web, as opposed to in a book or magazine.

MR Well, it’s weird. I had appeared in magazines before, but no one really noticed me until I was in The New Yorker in January of 2009. And with the Internet, once people notice it, a poem will proliferate all across the blogs and the Tumblrs and Wordpresses and all of that. It used to be that when you published a poem in a book or in a magazine, that was it. But now—for instance, Patton Oswalt recently tweeted that poem. And after that happened, people started reprinting it again all over the place. So, it has a longer shelf-life. And then, after a poem appears, people will go back and find your older poems and start reprinting those. I still get stuff from people who say, I just read your poem, “Alien vs. Predator,” which was published in January over two years ago. So, it’s really interesting to me. And no one seems to mind. The New Yorker and Poetry are not telling people to take these down from their blogs because it keeps the magazines in circulation too, because most people provide the links.

The only thing I ever do is, when GoogleAlerts tells me that there is some appearance of one of my poems, what I usually do is check that the person hasn’t mis-transcribed it. This has happened before. One guy republished my poem and inserted annotations inside the poem explaining references and stuff. And in the comments I said something like, I don’t mind if you reprint my poem, but if you’re going to annotate it, please don’t do so in brackets inside the text of the poem itself.

EP What’s your preferred method of reader-annotation?

MR I would prefer that no one annotate my poems at all! But if they’re going to, I’m not going to tell them not to. I’m not going to go in there and say, This is not what I meant by this poem at all! Once a poem is out there, it’s amazing: it’s not yours anymore.

And then, you read things about yourself. I understand that this is common, and it’s just part of becoming a relatively well-known author or poet, but it’s been amazing to me to be in my late thirties and now read conversations that people are having about me. And I don’t know these people, and they don’t know me. It’s very strange. It’s like they’re talking about someone else.

EP The other Borges.

MR Exactly. I know it’s a banal observation. But it’s one that really hits with force when it happens to you.

EP The other thing that caused a stir on the Internet was your review of Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at Olema.

MR Oh, god. Yes.

EP I read the review in Poetry magazine, and I read to the bottom of the online comment thread out of curiosity. I was amazed that so many people got so engaged in talking-back. For my part, I applauded you for writing something that proved that the poetic community isn’t only about loving and supporting its favorite members, although it certainly can be that, but that there’s also a critical discernment.

MR Thanks. The comment thread was nothing. The magazine ran letters for months about it. And I got emails—I got emails from people telling me that they were getting emails about it. There’s one guy who knows me, and who is known to know me, and his friends were writing to him asking him to defend me. People got very upset about that review.

And, sure, I’m not stupid. I understand that I was being provocative. So, the vehemence of it didn’t exactly surprise me. And if you just go by what it looks like on the Internet or in the magazine, it looks like everyone hates the review, but I got so much email from very well known critics and poets thanking me for writing it.

It doesn’t bother me that people got so worked up about it, but it does bother me that it’s still going on. There’s got to be something wrong with poetic discourse when someone says something about a very well-respected, very successful poet that is anything except adulatory, and we’re still talking about it six months later. If this was a music review, if someone slammed Radiohead, it wouldn’t have risen to this level. People would have been very bilious about it, but it’s not something that people would still be devoting time to six months later. It’s very strange to me. It’s like we’ve all signed this pact: we’re all supposed to believe that poetry is endangered, and poetry is the noblest of arts, and we must be very careful to only say nice things about one another, even if those nice things are not honest.

I just don’t understand it. Robert Hass is fine. Robert Hass is an extraordinarily successful, well-respected poet. He’s won all the awards, and his reputation is not threatened by a review in Poetry magazine.

EP Is that sacredness in poetry something you think about much in your own work?

MR Oh yeah. Some people don’t like my poetry because of its provocative nature. There’s much in my poetry that’s offensive to certain sensibilities, and people are wedded to their offense. Their offense is part of them. So they feel affronted. And, of course, that’s part of what the poetry is designed to elicit. Questions like, What is at stake in our offense? Why do we have such a very unskeptical view of our own offense? And why is it that we’re so willing to rely on our offense and our taste as barometers of. . . . anything. Except something about ourselves—because it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the world.

And, too, there is something about poetry in particular that is given to the sort of warmed-over, touchy-feely bromide that I’ve always found completely alien to my experience of the art.

EP How did you come to poetry then, if not by the touchy-feely route?

MR The first poets I read with any seriousness were Yeats and Rimbaud. I remember reading Paul Schmidt’s translation of Rimbaud when I was in high school and having the experience of poetry. My experience up until then had been mostly Wilfred Owen and Edna St. Vincent Millay—who are fine poets, but they didn’t speak to me. At the time I didn’t understand a whole bunch of what Yeats was talking about, but it didn’t seem to be safe poetry. And Rimbaud certainly seemed anything but safe. Reading Rimbaud was a revelation. It was like, Oh, you can do that in poetry?

And in time, of course, you come to care about the whole art. And you come to care about the poems about picking apples with your grandmother. But when Rimbaud says, “Our assholes are different from theirs. I used to watch young men let down their pants behind some tree.”—well, that’s Paul Schmidt’s translation. He’s a very liberal translator, but at the time I didn’t know that either. The poetry that I loved seemed to have a kind of freedom and a kind of. . . . a willingness to attack and to offend that I cared about. And that tracked with my interests in other arts, my interest in punk rock and hip hop for instance.

EP So, what’s your strategy for keeping your own work from feeling safe?

MR By the time I was writing the later poems in Alien vs. Predator, I had a style that I could work in—not effortlessly, because it cost me a lot of effort, but pretty securely. It was finding my way to that style that was hard. There were a lot of stops and starts, a lot of failed experiments.

It was realizing one day when I was reading Fredrick Seidel, that the sort of thing Seidel was doing and the sort of thing that a lot of the harder hip hop that I was listening to was doing had a lot in common. And if I could marry those sensibilities and bring a kind of hip hop aesthetic or rhythm or braggadocio to a kind of Seidelian shamelessness and offensiveness, I could really do something kind of interesting. And, along with that, my reading of Ashbery is long and deep, so I think something of his associative play finds its way in there too. I would hope that I’m more than just a mélange of my sources, but you never know.

Of course, a lot of people will say I’m exactly that, and that that’s the problem: it’s not worthwhile, or it’s too glib, or it’s too juvenile, or whatever. But I’m used to that.

EP And are you still working on Alien vs. Predator, or have you moved on to new projects?

MR I sent the final version to my editor a couple weeks ago. Now I think whatever I write is for the next book. I have ideas about how I would like to do something differently, but who knows if anything will come of it. I don’t want to say, in case the next book ends up as more of the same and I look like an idiot.

Michael Robbins is a Chicago-based poet whose poetry and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, London Review of Books, and elsewhere. His first book, Alien vs. Predator, is due out in April of 2012 from Penguin.

Elsbeth Pancrazi is a poet who lives and works in New York City. She is Managing Editor of Small Anchor Press, where she curates “The Dory Reader,” a monthly poetry publication. She also serves on the editorial board of PEN Literary Journal.

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